Friday October 26th, 2007

Advance scouts are the spies of the NBA: Every franchise employs one or more of them to travel the league and study opponents for weaknesses. Each year I interview a number of them -- anonymously and exhaustively -- to assess every team for Sports Illustrated's preview.

But this year I sought additional help: I asked 11 scouts for detailed predictions of the upcoming season. I wanted to know how they rank each conference from top to bottom during the regular season, as well as their projections for the conference finals and NBA Finals. They turn out to be a highly discriminating group: By their count, only three teams are capable of winning the championship next June.

Let's start with their regular-season rankings. Each scout was asked to grade the teams in each conferences from Nos. 1 to 15, regardless of divisional seeding for the playoffs. Total scoring was simple: A No. 1 vote was worth 1 point, while a vote for No. 15 docked that team 15 points, etc.

T-1. Boston Celtics (25 cumulative points) T-1. Detroit Pistons (25) 3. Chicago Bulls (32) 4. Cleveland Cavaliers (41) 5. Miami Heat (63) 6. New Jersey Nets (72) 7. Washington Wizards (78) 8. Toronto Raptors (80) 9. Orlando (86) 10. New York Knicks (112) 11. Milwaukee Bucks (122) 12. Atlanta Hawks (140) T-13. Indiana Pacers (144) T-13. Philadelphia 76ers (144) 15. Charlotte Bobcats (156)

The scouts divide the East into several tiers beginning with the elite of Boston, Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland. The next big divide separates No. 9 Orlando from No. 10 New York -- though the Knicks create the biggest argument in the conference, with one scout ranking them as high as No. 4 and others as low as No. 12. The bottom five teams receive no playoff votes from the scouts.

The Celtics are the only team awarded home-court advantage in the first round by every scout. But as you'll see below, the Celtics aren't expected to maintain that dominance throughout the postseason.

If these rankings come true, then Miami will be upgraded to a No. 4 seed as champion of the Southeast Division, thus dropping Cleveland to No. 5. Last season the Cavaliers finished No. 2 in the East on their way to the NBA Finals. But nine scouts predict the Cavs will decline -- to as far as No. 6, according to two of them -- after their failure to improve the roster or re-sign Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic yet.

Even more obvious is skepticism of the Raptors, the reigning Atlantic champs who are expected to drop five spots to No. 8 despite anticipated improvement from Andrea Bargnani and the acquisition of another three-point shooter in Jason Kapono. And while the Bobcats appeared to upgrade their roster, they're picked to drop four places since last year based on uncertainty over rookie coach Sam Vincent.

1. Dallas Mavericks (19) 2. San Antonio Spurs (22) 3. Phoenix Suns (25) T-4. Utah Jazz (53) T-4. Houston Rockets (53) 6. Denver Nuggets (66) 7. Golden State Warriors (84) 8. Los Angeles Lakers (87) 9. New Orleans Hornets (99) 10. Los Angeles Clippers (115) 11. Memphis Grizzlies (121) 12. Portland Trail Blazers (129) 13. Sacramento Kings (136) 14. Minnesota Timberwolves (155) 15. Seattle Super Sonics (156)

The scouts are unanimous that Dallas, San Antonio and Phoenix will be the top three teams in the West, though the Suns receive no votes for No. 1. Then there's a big drop to the next grouping of Houston, Utah and Denver. (Note that the Jazz would be granted the No. 4 seed in the playoffs as champions of the Northwest.) The bottom four teams receive no playoff votes from the scouts.

These standings represent little change from last season: None of the playoff teams made a big offseason change, and Memphis -- worst in the league a year ago -- looks like the only Western roster to undergo a major upgrade in talent.

Six teams in all are selected to reach the East finals, with the biggest support going to the Pistons. One scout picks the Knicks to get this far, two each side with the Heat and the Cavaliers, and five predict the Bulls will experience their deepest playoff run since the Michael Jordan era.

The Celtics and Pistons each are selected by six scouts to play in the conference finals. But here's the big difference: While only two pick Boston to win the East championship, all six are picking Detroit to advance to the NBA Finals.

"I am not sold on Boston,'' one scout said. "Even if they win 50 or more games, I'm predicting a collapse in the playoffs because I don't see them meshing everybody together in one year. They'll have a better chance in two years than they will this year.''

"Detroit is due,'' another scout said. "This is their last year to get it done, and they can play both sides of the ball. Rasheed [Wallace] is their X factor -- if he keeps his mouth shut and plays decent at both ends, then they're capable of doing it one more year.''

Only three teams are given a chance at the third round of the playoffs. Three scouts pick Dallas to lose in the conference finals, while eight like Phoenix to advance to this stage. But there is unanimity on their opponent -- all 11 scouts project that San Antonio will make the conference finals for the fourth straight year, and nine of them think the Spurs will continue on to the NBA Finals.

Several scouts emphasize that the Spurs have brought back their entire championship rotation, enabling them to pick up where they left off without having to teach their complicated system to a new group of players. No contender has a better sense of how to pace itself during the regular season than San Antonio.

"I know two things,'' a scout said. "Dallas isn't going to lose in the first round again this year, and San Antonio may not have the best record but it will have the best team.''

Cleveland, Miami and Chicago each receive one vote as a losing team in the Finals; the Celtics earn two such votes.

Two also pick Phoenix to reach the Finals -- with one scout picking the Suns to win their first championship this year.

Three scouts like the Pistons to win their second title in five years.

But the overwhelming favorite is the Spurs, who receive championship votes from seven scouts. That would make five titles so far for Tim Duncan, matching the total of Magic Johnson and bringing Duncan within one ring of equaling Jordan.

Until they're beaten, they are the best team," said the advance scout who breaks down the Spurs in our NBA preview. It's been years since anyone beat them convincingly. I expect to see the same effort as last year with this being maybe the last year for their group of old role players. But at the same time, I wouldn't be surprised to see them make a move at the deadline to get younger, because sooner or later they're going to have to replenish."

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